'NA' – standing for Not Available – is the scourge of every opera director trying to schedule rehearsal slots for the star performers as the performance looms ever closer.
They are Fiona Hymns (soprano) and Jack Lawrence-Jones (baritone), Countess and Count respectively in our 'Figaro' production, and our Musical Director Panaretos Kyriatzidis (pianist). Click on their links to read more about each individual.
So normally we'd be keeping quiet about members of our cast doing a disappearing act in the last month of rehearsals, but just this once we're going to celebrate their success and wish them a very productive break from our preparations for Le Nozze di Figaro.
This June, not one, not two, but three of our team have left London for a week to head for the Suffolk coast. The reason? They are all very fortunate to have been selected to join the most prestigious Britten-Pears Young Artist Programme for the "Singing Britten" week (June 16-23).
What is the Britten-Pears Young Artist Programme? It was originally set up as a fully immersive experience for young artists across the music spectrum. This opportunity for young artists still holds true and is an opportunity that cannot be turned down, delivering an intense week of work, camaraderie and unique learning.
Musicians can apply for any of the courses, whatever the discipline. In previous years, the programme ran live auditions, but with its increasing international popularity, auditions are now by video application. Despite there being a small audition fee (not uncommon these days), even unsuccessful applications now garner a rare and detailed feedback – a welcome and helpful change from the usual unexplained rejection.
But for successful applicants, from then on, the whole experience is fully subsidised – right down to the train tickets. And Fiona has been selected as tour manager for the entire Singing Britten troupe – "I obviously came across as the organised one!"
The courses are of an amazing standard. For instance, the Opera Arias course is run by Antonio Pappano. "We decided not to apply for that course, as we're a bit beyond it," joked Jack.
"But the standard of coaching is amazing," says Pan. "For our 'Singing Britten' week we have international tenor Mark Padmore leading the course, with world renowned voice coach Julia Faulkner and, especially important for me, pianist James Baillieu – a fantastic line-up!"
Although the courses run from around March to October, the beauty of 'Singing Britten' is that it is held in conjunction with the Aldeburgh Festival at Benjamin Britten's home town, running throughout the month of June. This means that not only does the course have top notch coaching, but the public events attract the most discerning of music loving audiences.
For both Fiona and Jack, this will be their second time being selected as Britten-Pears Young Artists. Last year Fiona was singing Wolf Lieder for the week. "So, there is little repetition – not just the tutors but you’re also zoning in on specific repertoire and getting the best tuition from tutors who are specialists for that repertoire," she adds.
Pan interjects: "And for Jack, he previously sang a week of Brahms lieder with Thomas Quasthoff, and I was lucky enough to be invited to attend for a day because one of the pianists was indisposed. So last time I came in by the back door, you might say, but this year, it’s the full immersive experience."
"It's a week long course and at the end we get to sing a recital for the Aldeburgh Festival, which is some gig to be part of!" comments Jack. "Yeah," adds Fiona, "Singing Britten songs in Britten Land is quite something."
"And we have actually been invited to perform a couple of songs in Britten's house itself as part of Aldeburgh Festival's 'Song Moments'," adds Pan. "Playing Britten's songs on his piano will be absolutely incredible – I get goosebumps just thinking about it."
So, what's the end result? "It's so transformative," says Fiona.
"It's so much fun," says Jack, adding, "it's like a holiday – work with amazing tutors, fun with your peers, time on the beach – it's like a retreat. It doesn't get much better. And it's a great accolade to be able to add the experience to your CV."
"It's great for making connections, for networking," says Pan.
So much for those NAs which, this time, have resulted in a serendipitous collusion of three musicians who barely knew each other before the catalyst of St Paul's Opera, but realised this was the trigger to form a dream team to take to Snape Maltings for a week in June 2019. This is truly a win, win.
One last question to these three: which songs have been your hero? For Fiona, she's hard pushed to choose from the 'On This Island' cycle, but maybe she sides with the Last Rose of Summer. Pan drills down to 'Nocturne' from 'On This Island'. Jack, however, plumps for 'The Poison Tree', perhaps in preparation for the late summer exhibition of William Blake, author of 'The Poison Tree', at the Tate Modern.
Fiona Hymns found a roundabout route to singing. After a degree in History (London – Royal Holloway) she then worked as a project manager for a museum. However, after four years, she took the plunge and applied to Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester, to study a two year Masters in vocal studies. Today she is a freelance professional both in top notch choruses and performing solo as a lyric soprano, singing roles such as Countess (Le Nozze di Figaro), Alcina (Alcina), Donna Elvira (Don Giovanni) and Adina (L’Elisir d’Amore). If truth be know, she would love to add Mimi to the list.
Jack Lawrence-Jones took the path of choral singing in his early years - choirs at school - then Computer Science and Psychology at Uni (Cambridge) where he immersed himself in the myriad of choral and operatic opportunities on offer. Post Uni he came to London and focused on "loads more choral singing" but decided to take the plunge and head for Guildhall for a two year Masters. Nowadays he focuses on a mixture of opera and concert work. His dream role: Pelléas!
Panaretos Kyriatzidis studied Law in Greece and learning piano on the side before packing his bags and embracing all that London had to offer. He enrolled at Trinity Laban to study a Masters in Piano, and then a 2 year postgrad Artist Diploma, before deciding to stay for a further two year fellowship in accompaniment. The moment he left, he was asked to become musical director for a small opera company and never looked back. He remains passionate with all things to do with the music of the voice.